Saturday, December 30, 2006

Rocky Balboa

An unexpected knockout of a movie. I went into this not expecting much and was pleasantly surprised at the solid script and acting. Sylvester Stallone sends Rocky out on a high note compared to the punch drunk last few Rocky films.

There is plenty of schmaltz in "Rocky Balboa" but Stallone finds a great balance between the nostalgia of Rocky's past and a contemporary storyline that actually works. The film is very well cast with Burt Young returning as Paulie to provide sage advice and comic relief and Geraldine Hughes as a possible new romance for Rocky. Her character, Marie, is a nice touch having been introduced way back in the first Rocky film. The film also co-stars Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky's grown son and Antonio Tarver as his new opponent, Mason Dixon.

The story works because Stallone keeps it simple and fairly realistic. He takes the characters back to their roots and though there may be some unintentional laughs, you really start to believe in these characters again and care about their outcome.

Adrian would be so proud.

Happy Feet

I finally caught up to this popular animated holiday film. While I found the animation terrific and the dancing and singing penguins very cute, I also had issues with the film.

The majority of the story takes place in Antarctica and watching the penguins with just a snow and ice background (and a few underwater scenes) gets pretty tedious after a while. For small children, the snow leopard sequence can be pretty frightening and even though the elephant seals are not threatening, they too can look pretty scary to a small child.

Additionally, on one hand, the animation renders the animal life incredibly realistic but on the other hand, they all sing and dance (except the predators who behave naturally). This is a mixed messages for kids and it happens over and over again with animated animal movies. There is also a subplot about ecology and the food chain. Small children won't understand it and older children won't buy the fairy tale resolution. If you want to teach your children about real penguins, take them to an aquarium or zoo.

Robin Williams provides the voice of 2 characters and both accents are racial stereotypes. Besides Mr. Williams, vocal talent is provided by Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Britney Murphy and as the lead character, "Mumble", Elijah Wood. They all do a good job with their characters.

Possibly the filmmakers were inspired by "March of The Penguins" or maybe it was the Polar Bear/Penguin Coca Cola commercial ( I expected every bird to be holding a bottle by the film's end). Either way, I've had my fill of animated penguins.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth

The latest film from director Guillermo del Toro is a masterpiece. A blend of fantasy mixed with harsh reality creates a perfect film experience. The acting is excellent, the visuals amazing, and the story, original and totally captivating. Traditionally, I don't publish my yearly Top 10 list until January 1st but right now, this is the film to beat.

The year is 1944 and the civil war in Spain has just ended. A remote army outpost in the forest, run by a sadistic Army captain, is the setting for the story. The captain's pregnant wife arrives with her daughter Ofelia (from a previous marriage) to live with him while she brings her pregnancy to term. Ofelia's real father has died and she doesn't look forward to her new life until she discovers what she believes to be a fairy, and an old Labyrinth behind the building where they live.

The captain spends his days searching the forest for lingering rebels still fighting the war. Ofelia spends her days in a fantasy world of fauns and fairies. The magic of del Toro's story lies in the blending of the two worlds. Has Ofelia discovered a different existence within the labyrinth or is it of her own creation to escape her dark reality?

The art direction and cinematography are stunning. The fantasy sequences are beautiful as well as frightening. The captain's actions against the rebels are brutal and violent. This fairy tale of a film is not meant for children. The film is in Spanish with English subtitles but much of the story is visual and words aren't even necessary. This is a film not to be missed. It's simply remarkable. And if you do enjoy it (as I hope you will), rent del Toro's earlier work, "The Devil's Backbone", an excellent film as well which explores similar themes.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Children of Men

This is an intelligent but bleak vision of the future. Women are infertile and the human race faces extinction in a matter of years. The story takes place in and around London and the country is in chaos. All immigrants have been labeled illegal and are rounded up and placed in refugee camps. A rebel group, calling itself "The Fishes" is fighting back against the government and there are frequent bombings and firefights. The city is in ruins. Julianne Moore is one of the rebel leaders who recruits star Clive Owen to help with what might just be the future of mankind. Michael Caine co-stars as Owen's friend, an aging hippie, who provides help and shelter as the story progresses.

Filmed through a cold blue/gray lens, the story grows bleaker by the minute but it is Mr. Owen's new found hope for the future that drives him forward. His resolve becomes the audience's strength and we rally around him as he strives to complete his mission.

This was a risky film to release at the holidays as it certainly is far from cheery but along with solid acting and a smart script, it's ultimate message of hope for the future makes it worthy viewing.

We Are Marshall

In 1970, a plane crash claimed the lives of 75 people made up of players, coaches and fans of Marshall University's football team. This was the worst disaster in sports history. Not only are the families devastated but it leaves Marshall University and the entire town of Huntington W. Virginia with a loss many thought would never be overcome. "We Are Marshall" is the story of how rebuilding a team could heal a town. As long as there are real life inspirational sports stories, Hollywood will keep turning them into movies. "We Are Marshall" joins the "A" list of films like "Hoosiers" or "Rudy". As with those films, it is inspirational and heartfelt and filled with time worn clichés and stock characters. What sets it apart is the tragic story that sets up the the comeback.

Many films like this one start out with the words "inspired by true events" or "based on real events". "Marshall" starts out with "this is a true story". Since that is the case, it's really hard to criticize the story. What is fair game are the performances of the actors, which is always tough when they are portraying real people. Matthew McConaughey plays Jack Lengyel, the coach hired by Marshall to rebuild the team. Unless we know the real Jack Lengyel, we can only assume his performance is honest. One annoying trait was talking out of the side of his mouth. If that was his own invention, he would have been better served without it. Matthew Fox has a very emotional role as Red Dawson, a surviving coach, and basically plays his TV character, Jack, the tortured doctor from "Lost" with red hair. Ian McShane, in a complete reversal of his "Deadwood" character, plays a grieving father, representing the grief of the entire town.

If you are a fan of these types of films, it has everything you look for, including a groovy '70's soundtrack played over montage after montage of team rebuilding, the injured player who just won't quit, and of course, the coaches' speech before the "big game". It took years for Marshall to be a competitive football team again but eventually they did, going on to have many championship seasons. Even though you recognize the clichés, you can't help but be moved by the story.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Good Shepherd

Director Robert DeNiro sets out to make "The Godfather" of espionage films but loses his way in the editing room. There is an intelligent, absorbing story buried in the excesses of this plodding, numbing film and knowing when to cut may have saved it.

Billed as the untold story of the birth of the CIA, the premise is very inviting but after a promising start, the film gets caught in it's own complexities and loses its focus. Staying centered on the CIA's inception would have been far more interesting without Matt Damon's soap opera of personal issues. His personal sacrifices become the heart of the film and could have been expressed in a more economical fashion and still made the point.

The acting is actually very good. Mr. Damon maintains his stoic, icy demeanor throughout keeping his family, and unfortunately the audience, at a distance. Angelina Jolie, while terribly miscast as his wife, makes the most of her role and brings much needed energy to the dull proceedings. The rest of the pedigree cast (including William Hurt, Alex Baldwin and John Turturro) do fine work but unfortunately Mr. DeNiro's glacial direction keeps the audience struggling to appreciate the effort.

The central question (no pun intended) is how much will a man sacrifice for his country? The film answers the question but takes too long to tell the tale.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Letters From Iwo Jima

Clint Eastwood has reached a new pinnacle in his career. First he brings us the superb film, "Flags of Our Fathers" and in the same year follows it up with it's brilliant companion piece, "Letters From Iwo Jima". The two films cover the same historical moment in time but couldn't be further apart. "Flags" covered the American point of view of the battle of Iwo Jima, focusing on the famous flag raising and the guilt that haunted the men responsible for their effort when pressed into service by the military propaganda machine. "Letters" focuses on the battle itself, told completely from the Japanese point of view. It is an intimate portrait of war told through the letters and memories of the soldiers that lived and died during terrible battle.

After a brief contemporary prologue, the story shifts to 1944 as the Japanese prepare to defend Iwo Jima from the coming American attack. The story focuses on a handful of Japanese soldiers, enlisted men and officers alike, and follows them through the attack and battle for possession of the island. Through their story we come to know them not as the enemy but rather husbands and sons just like our own troops, fighting and dying in a conflict not of their choosing.

The steel gray cinematography lends itself perfectly to the barren island, it's black sand beaches and it's man-made caves. The score is haunting and compliments the story without overwhelming it. "Letters From Iwo Jima is this generation's "All Quiet On The Western Front". As a bookend to "Flags of Our Fathers", Mr. Eastwood has delivered a masterful one-two punch on the futility of war.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Night At The Museum

Great Special effects and an original story make this a really fun film. It takes a minute to get rolling but once Ben Stiller accepts the job as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History, the film shifts into overdrive. Plenty of mayhem ensues when everything at the Museum comes to life at night, thanks to a magic Egyptian charm. The clever screenplay mixes slapstick, family values, history lessons, and an unlikely love story into basically a two hour commercial for the museum.

The casting is excellent. Ben Stiller is a master at controlled chaos and Robin Williams is a restrained but perfect Teddy Roosevelt. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan are great fun as a feuding cowboy and Roman general. And for the adults in the audience, it's good to see Mickey Rooney, Dick Van Dyke and Bill Cobb still haven't lost their touch.

Having been to the real museum many times, you can easily imagine many of the exhibits coming to life. There may be some concern that the film would scare children from visiting the museum but even the few scary moments are quickly played for laughs, particularly initial moments with the T-Rex and The Mummy. Actually, I believe by the film's end, people will be encouraged to visit the museum and that's a good thing as it's a wonderful institution. For any family, this is a enjoyable "night" out.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Curse Of The Golden Flower

If you enjoyed "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "House of Flying Daggers", or "Hero", you will certainly be looking forward to this latest period piece out of China. I know I was. Starring Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li and directed by Yimou Zhang, "Golden Flower" had all the ingredients for a smash hit. Unfortunately, the film does not perform up to the standards of the previously mentioned films.

The story is full of family secrets, double crosses, incest, and betrayals but bogs down terribly in the first half. The setup for all this intrigue is very slow and not much actually happens but Zhang redeems himself in the second half of the film when secrets are revealed and betrayals are set in motion.The CGI work in the climatic battles scenes could have been better. Much of the fighting resembles a videogame but the close-up martial arts work is terrific. The good news is the film is beautiful to watch. The colors, sets, costumes, and pageantry are outstanding.

Yun-Fat, playing the Emperor, (aside from a quick sword fight he performs sitting down) doesn't have much to do except brood and Gong Li, beautiful as always, plays her part as the Empress pretty much the same way with much biting of the lip. The story is Shakespearean in scope (although it actually predates Shakespeare) and for fans of this genre, it works but it could have been stronger.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

Inspired by Chris Gardner's true story, this film is perfect for the holidays. Chris Gardner was a smart man dealt a tough hand. Struggling to make ends meet with only a high school degree, he hustles everyday for his family. After his wife (played by an effective Thandie Newton) has had enough and leaves, it is up to Chris to keep it together for him and his 5 year old son.

Will Smith is outstanding as Gardner. He is certain to pick up an Academy Award nomination for his work here. Not one minute of his performance rings false. You feel his pain, frustration and exhaustion in every frame. Smith's film son is portrayed by his real life son, Jaden Smith, and he does a fine job holding his own against his dad. I don't think he's quite ready for his acceptance speech yet but if he wants to follow in his dad's footsteps, he's got a future.

Credit the screen writer and director (as well as Smith) for a story that stays honest and never gets too sappy. It's a dog eat dog world and you have to credit Gardner's resolve to stay in step with the pack. Smith's performance and this story are both an inspiration.

Friday, December 15, 2006


After everything I had heard about the violence of this film, frankly, I was expecting a lot worse. Is it violent? Yes, but it is also a terrific film. Say what you will about Mel Gibson's personal behavior but when he's behind the camera, he is an excellent filmmaker. Mr. Gibson definitely has issues. With each of his last few films, he has upped the violence level considerably. However, he has also written and directed a film with a simple yet powerful story, well acted and beautifully shot.

Jaguar Paw lives a peaceful existence in the Mayan jungle with his son and pregnant wife. Their village is raided by another more powerful tribe and many are killed. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son but is captured along with other men of the tribe. They will be kept alive only to be sacrificed later to appease the gods. His escape and the manhunt that ensues make up the rest of the film. The sacrifices made at the temple are extremely violent but actually could have been far more graphic. Knowing what these men are capable of makes things all that more exciting as Jaguar Paw is pursued through the jungle, determined to survive and find his family.

The cinematography is wonderful. The pace of the film is frenetic and never lets up. The music, by James Horner, compliments the story beautifully and don't be put off by the sub-titles. Yes, the film is spoken in a Mayan dialect but dialog is kept to a minimum and visually, the story is very easy to follow.

Cover your eyes at times but don't be afraid to see this original, well crafted, exciting, adventure.

Blood Diamond

"Blood Diamond" presents itself as a serious "Romancing The Stone". It's a decent enough action adventure but it features stock characters in a film that tries to hard to be an important message movie. Leonardo DeCaprio is the hardened diamond smuggler out to find the rare "Blood Diamond" discovered and hidden by Djimon Hounsou. Hounsou plays the proud fisherman kidnapped from his family by the evil rebels and forced to work in the conflict diamond mines. Rounding out this African "Mod Squad" is Jennifer Connelly as a reporter who wants the story and of course, falls for DeCaprio. The acting is solid especially from Hounsou (who's always good) but the script contains too much silly dialog and too many repetitive chase scenes.

Through a series of well timed escapes, the two men join together when DeCaprio promises to help Hounsou find his family if they split the profits from the diamond. Connelly's character exists only to awaken DeCaprio's conscience and provide commentary about "conflict" diamonds and their horrible impact on the people of Africa. Since the film takes place in 1999 and conditions have changed now in Sierre Leone, part of the message is moot but questions are still raised. While accords have been signed and "conflict" diamonds are only a small percentage now of the World Diamond trade, one can only look at our own diamond jewelry and wonder where those diamonds came from. Genocide still exist today in parts of Africa but "Blood Diamond" was released as holiday entertainment, so we are more concerned if DeCaprio gets his diamond, Hounsou reunites with his family, and Connelly gets her story.

Additional editing would have made for a better film. Cutting down on those endless chase scenes would have saved time for more emoting from Hounsou or silly dialog from DeCaprio. Save "Blood Diamond" for DVD and for a real important message, read about what's happening now in Darfur.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Wire-Season 4

I don't usually write about a TV show but I just watched the finale of this year's "The Wire" on HBO and had to comment.

Nothing else on TV comes close to the brilliance of this show. Each season brings more depth and intelligence to an amazing drama. Every facet of this show is pure poetry. The acting, direction, writing, and even Baltimore itself as a character, never ring false. If you have "On Demand", start watching from the beginning. Rent or buy the first three seasons. If this season of The Wire were a feature film, it would blow away the competition at the Academy Awards.

It's too smart for television but HBO, to their credit, keeps it going. Season four is filled with so much raw emotion, heartbreak, and no easy answers that at times, you can't bring yourself to watch and yet, there is the glimmer of hope and a better tomorrow for some of the characters.

If you care about quality drama that will challenge and move you, get "wired up" now.

Saturday, December 02, 2006


The title misleads you into thinking this is a film about Bobby Kennedy. The film is actually about Kennedy's impact on an assortment of real and fictitious characters at the Ambassador Hotel on the day he is shot. An all star cast including Sharon Stone, Demi Moore, William H. Macy, Christian Slater, and Anthony Hopkins, just to name a few, play the various characters working or staying at the hotel on that historical day. In total, 22 recognizable actors worked for scale in this labor of love by writer/director, Emilio Estevez.

Estevez does a decent job blending fact and fiction, inserting many news clips of Kennedy into the story, rather than recreating the man himself (with the exception of a few back shots). The storytelling is ambitious with so many characters (including Estevez himself as Moore's husband and manager) but Estevez fails to develop some of them along the way. His overall effort though succeeds in entertaining and enlightening us as well.

Watching the film brings to mind, old disaster movies like "Airport" and "The Towering Inferno". Star studded affairs linked by a central theme. You care for some characters more than others and in this case, you know going in, who is sure to be killed. Kennedy's impact on this particular generation and the hope he represented reverberates throughout the film and when he is shot, you instantly feel that shattered moment. That message of hope, like that of Martin Luther King and JFK before him, lives on, to one day come to fruition.

Friday, December 01, 2006


The sins of the past can come back and heal rather than harm in the latest film from Pedro Almodovar. It was Almodovar who first brought our attention to Penelope Cruz. In "Volver", she returns to her native Spanish, where her work is far better than her English speaking roles. Here, working again with Almodovar, Cruz shines as the centerpiece of this intimate family drama.

Cruz plays mother, daughter, and sister in a family of women scarred by events of the past. When tragedy strikes again, it is up to Cruz to hold everything together and when a major revelation occurs, it appears to further complicate things. Almodovar is a master when it comes to writing for, and directing women. Everyone in the film is wonderful and there are many moments of quiet beauty and surprise.

"Volver" is possibly Almodovar's most commercial film yet even as he expands on themes he has covered in some of his more outrageous films. He has a remarkable touch for creating light and poetry out of dark subject matter.